Archive for Thursday, June 19, 2008

Drama filled 1880 GOP convention

June 19, 2008

Every four years, the United States becomes enthralled with the ongoing battle to earn party nominations for president. While this year's contest for the Democratic nomination is unique, it certainly isn't the most explosive or bitter. There have been many other fights over the years, and at least one ended in tragedy.

The heated fight for the 1880 nomination is well-chronicled in the book "Dark Horse," by Ken Ackerman. The split in the Republican Party ended with the assassination of the president. It was a dark time in American history which resulted in sweeping changes. Unfortunately, it is a story which is now relatively unknown.

Sen. James Garfield of Ohio had no idea he would be running for president in 1880. Garfield had a unique career. He was the only ordained minister to have served as president and the first member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to be chief executive. His career included teaching, a stint as president of Hiram College and serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. A brigadier general in the Union Army, he had a good military career. He was able to survive a well-publicized extramarital affair and maintain his status.

After a bit of research, it seems to me that Garfield may be one of the most gifted men to ever be president. He could speak and write in German, Latin and Greek. He was the first presidential candidate to campaign in two languages - speaking to new residents in their native German. He was the first left-handed person to be president. He could write with both hands and would amaze people by hearing a sentence in English and simultaneously write it in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other.

A gifted speaker, Garfield addressed the convention and served as its moderator. The party was split between the "Stalwarts" or conservatives and the "Half-Breeds" or more moderate wing of the party. The convention was soon deadlocked and unable to select a nominee. Those battling for the right to be Republican standard bearer were: Ulysses Grant, who had served two terms and was now seeking a third; Sen. James Blaine and Sen. John Sherman. The delegates sat through hours of angry debate and ballot after ballot with no one able to secure the nomination.

There was no air conditioning in those days so there was stifling heat and the attitude of the delegates turned uglier, which resulted in flaring tempers and fist fights. It became obvious none of the three leading candidates could win the nomination. Suddenly, a movement was started to select a dark horse, and the obvious selection was Garfield. Finally on the 36th ballot, Garfield received the nomination and the challenge of bringing the splintered party together. His first move was to secure the nomination of a Stalwart, Chester A. Arthur, as vice president.

Apparently the ticket worked well. Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee and former Union general Winfield S. Hancock. It was a narrow victory with Garfield taking the popular vote by 34,000. He received 214 electoral votes to 155 for Hancock.

There is a footnote that I discovered in my research. In 1880, the presidential salary was $50,000 which was a very princely sum.

After the election, Garfield's problems mounted. Because of the spoils system, he was deluged with office seekers. When he appointed "Half-Breeds," the Stalwarts were angry, and no matter how he tried to walk a narrow line, appointments were a major source of frustration.

All of this came to a head a few months after the election. While walking through a railroad station in Washington, D.C., a frustrated and probably insane office seeker and Stalwart, Charles Guiteau, shot the president. Apparently, he felt no remorse and bragged that he was proud to have returned the Stalwarts to office. The court didn't agree with his plea and he was hanged in June 1882. He bragged he selected a gun that would look good on a museum shelf.

Even though Garfield was president, most experts question the quality of medical care he received. After his death, many experts believe he died because of inept treatment.

National anger at the assassination resulted in the spoils system being abolished and an era of professional public service was ushered in.

There may be a Garfield connection in Bonner Springs, however I can't verify it. After Garfield's death, the Disciples of Christ started a nationwide movement to establish new churches, and I have heard that the Bonner Springs Christian Church was a "Garfield" church.

Would Garfield have been a good president? No one knows because he only served a few months. What is sad, however, is that his story has been largely ignored.

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